Six Inches of Discomfort

This is the Mini-Ethnography I wrote for Anthropology. Six Inches of Discomfort was its working title, referring to how I was feeling throughout the visit as well as how much length I lost. However, in the interest of hiding my filthy sense of humour from the teaching crew at the University of Auckland I did rename it for the hand in.

Not Class, The Politics of the Body, Social Etiquette or Trust, but Touching and Sharing in Social Grooming: My Trip to the Hairdresser.


I thought for this ethnography I would put myself outside my comfort zone and participate in something that although is quite commonplace for many, is a nerve-racking and uncomfortable experience for me, and one which invariably ends in tears. I had not visited a hairdresser in many years and am overly protective of my hair. I had ambitions to discuss ideas around the politics of the body, and trust in a social grooming experience from an etic perspective, and to make things even more interesting I decided to step out of what I perceive to be my own class and chose a very upmarket salon in Newmarket; Servilles, as well as a Senior Stylist specialising in the field of long hair. I had done some research on their website and chosen the person who I thought would best understand my needs, Gail Withers, a multi award winning stylist. However, my reflections did not entirely mirror my intentions.

I walked off the street and pushed through double glass doors, where a receptionist greeted me and led me to a row of couches to wait. There was a selection of elegantly arranged glossy magazines. Candles lit dark wooden shelves and reflected off shiny marble and wooden floors, neutral understated greens, creams and browns mixed with natural textures like stone and wood. The largest section of the room is broken up into mirrored cubicles and from this area a low hum of conversation and multiple hairdryers is mixed with the low thump of music played at a subdued level from hidden speakers.

The receptionist, who remained unnamed, introduced me to Sid, an immaculately groomed man in vintage clothing, who in turn introduced me to the very stylish Gail, who smiled, pulled loose my braid and asked me what I wanted, after my brief description, she nodded and excused herself. Sid ushered me into the wash-room where he made sure I was comfortable in a tilted chair, covered me in a white cape and told me to lean back and relax. He started to wet down my hair and initiated small talk about things visually obvious; the length of my hair, visible tattoos, small compliments (to put me at ease?), I asked him about himself and he told me he had been working at Servilles for three months. As he began to massage my scalp the small talk ceased and the experience became very sensual and for me, slightly uncomfortably personal, as his hands wandered like the hands of a lover in circles lightly over my forehead, over my scalp and firmly to my neck where his fingers found the tension and soothed it away. As he worked with his now familiar hands he told me about the tattoo he has been planning, how it incorporates his star sign and symbols of all the places he has travelled, how his grandmother who he feels very close to has a tattoo, and how he feels he needs to get one to fit in with his family. We spoke of a shared love of retro cardigans and a style of dress we laughingly dubbed ‘Shabby Nana Chic’ and shared our prized op-shop locations.

The wash over he offered me tea or coffee, I declined and he expanded the offer to an Organic Lemon Ice block, which I accepted. He took me through to the cutting room and parked me in a comfortable white chair in front of a full-length mirror and left me to stare at myself eating an ice block in a white cape and deftly turbaned hair. I took the opportunity to look around me and here the use of multiple mirrors became interesting. Gail my stylist was working on her previous client in the station in front of me and from my perch behind her I could see multiple views of Gail as she worked, she seemed to be aware of this and occasionally caught my eye in one of the mirrors and smiled while I waited for her to finish.

I had planned to ask for my hair clippings at the end of the session so I could take them home and perhaps rather sentimentally dispose of them when I was ready, but after watching the clients around me, it didn’t seem like an acceptable behaviour here, where hair is matter out of place and quickly swept out of sight by waiting assistants. Gail came over and started off the cut in keeping with the character I had glimpsed in the mirrors, friendly and professional. Gail was obviously competent and cut with small quick snips and dramatic flourishes of hair. She asked me about my ‘activities’ and when I told her that I taught art at a tertiary school nearby Gail dropped her busy arms still to her sides and told me her desire to ‘no bullshit’ follow her passion for art.[1]

She spoke of her dream of giving up hairdressing when her daughter was old enough, and returning to study. I asked her what she was interested in and she told me of the dream house she designed and built, the sleepless nights spent making and the notebooks full of sketches and ideas.

Slowly the professionalism returned as she reached the end of the cut and the conversation returned to topics less dear to the heart, and by the time she was applying something called a wand to turn my hair into a mass of ringlets, our conversation had slipped back into the mundane.

It was friendly but detached professionalism as she finished up and moved on to her next client who was waiting in the wings, and my time was over although Sid waved and winked at me as he led another woman into the wash area. It left me wondering how much of the friendly bonding was real and how much is part of their ordinary working lives, a kind of emotional labour that may be expected of a hairstylist. What was intriguing to me was the reflection that both Sid and Gail had at one point opened up about themselves, about their family lives, their goals and passions, for a while I had seen the professional façade drop but then it was reasserted and what felt like a genuine personal connection was gone. Both Sid and Gail were at their most sharing and narrative when they had their fingers entwined through my hair, on my scalp, and as they worked their way away from my head, they became figuratively as well as literally more distant. Perhaps the intimate physical touching of another person allows us to lower barriers between us and to share information, social grooming as a kind of social bonding through touch. In a smaller society those relationships built might be more permanent, more bonding, whereas in my large metropolis the links seem delicate and fleeting. Although the experience was not as bad as I had expected and I met two fascinating people, later that night I still cried for the hair I abandoned on the cutting room floor.


[1]Gail Withers (Senior stylist, Servilles Newmarket), in conversation with author, March 31, 2014




[1] Gail Withers (Senior stylist, Servilles Newmarket), in conversation with author, March 31, 2014


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s